This is a series on Better News to a) showcase innovative/experimental ideas that emerge from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and b) share replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole. This “win” comes from Kati Erwert, senior vice president of product, marketing and public service, and Danny Gawlowski, assistant managing editor, both of The Seattle Times, which participated in the Major Market Table Stakes program in 2017.
Question: What communities do you serve and what can you tell us about the history of your organization?
Answer: The Seattle Times is a nearly 125-year-old independent and locally owned news media company serving the Puget Sound region. We have around 170 journalists in our newsroom. We’ve won 11 Pulitzer Prizes, including one in 2020 for national reporting on the Boeing 737 MAX crisis. We are in our fourth and fifth generation of Blethen family stewards that own and operate our company.
Q: What problem were you trying to solve, and why was solving the problem strategically important for your organization?
A: Three years ago, we had a problem. When we asked our subscribers open-ended questions about what they thought about our site, we got many variations of the same theme: People thought our homepage was “stale.” They were visiting us often enough that they felt that nothing on our homepage had changed, and it offered no reason to come back.
This problem was our own creation. For several years, our newsroom had bought into the myth that the “homepage was dead,” as most of our audiences found news through the “sideways traffic” of social media and search engines. Our metrics confirmed this: The bulk of users were finding us through search and social.
When someone visits a story “sideways,” they are coming because they are interested in that particular topic. They found a story on social media or in search results that they are interested in and want to learn more. That’s great. But it might be tough to capture their interest again.
We had decided to slow down the rate of homepage updates before we had an understanding of how important our core audience was. The focus on “sideways traffic” and occasional users distracted us from the needs of our most dedicated audiences. They noticed and were letting us know any way they could.
When a person visits your homepage, they are looking to you to tell them what they should be interested in. It shows that they trust you and are interested in the stories you produce on a regular basis. When people show that much trust and commitment to our reporting, we need to value them and what they tell us.
To our audience, the homepage was not dead. But we were killing it by slowing updates down too much. It was time to bring it back to life by updating it much more frequently.
Q: How is this approach related to Table Stakes (e.g. one of the 7 Table Stakes and/or an outgrowth of the Knight-Lenfest initiative, etc.)?
A: This approach is related to Table Stake No. 3 (“Produce and publish continuously to meet audience needs”).
Our decision to slow down the homepage was really based on internal resources and not using complete data to make our decisions. It was easier to publish our homepage once a day, like our print product. But that’s not what our audiences wanted. True to Table Stake No. 3, our subscribers were looking to us to provide “an ‘always on, always there’ flow of digital-first content matched to the life rhythms and habits of (our) target audiences, their time and attention availability.”
Q: How did you go about solving the problem?
A: We started with a simple approach to get moving quickly. We made a schedule to update our homepage centerpiece with more frequent changes based on our typical traffic surges: early morning, morning commute, lunchtime, evening commute and overnight. That would make a clear indication to people visiting multiple times a day that they could always find something fresh on our site.
We assigned the lower portions of the homepage for individual departments to monitor so that no story remained on our homepage for more than a day. Wherever that was difficult to maintain, we adjusted the design of our site to remove, combine or rotate some of the more slow-moving sections. We curate one experience that feeds to our desktop, mobile and app homepages, with small tweaks to optimize for each.
We also linked subscriber data into Chartbeat to provide producers a view of how our paying audiences (and as a proxy those that may subscribe) behave differently on the homepage. We prioritized staff time spent on homepage curation by reducing time spent on activities that had less impact on subscriptions, such as podcast production.
Q: What worked?
A: Sticking to a schedule helped us clearly communicate to our newsroom that we were changing course. We altered the rate of change on the homepage and helped the entire room focus on it more than they had before.
Our audiences noticed. Within a year, we stopped receiving complaints of staleness on our homepage. We successfully changed audience perception that had built up over time, becoming more relevant to their daily lives.
We continue to monitor reader satisfaction and response closely through monthly Net Promoter Score (NPS) tracking and surveys specifically asking about frequency of homepage updates. NPS has been a powerful way to stay tapped into digital subscribers that often do not complain in the traditional ways that print subscribers do. During this period of changing curation, we’ve seen the highest levels of reader satisfaction since we began NPS tracking in 2015.
We knew from analysis from our product team that the homepage is critical in driving subscriber engagement and acquisition. That group continues to closely monitor the percentage of subscribers engaging digitally that visit the homepage. We also closely track the number of new subscribers that visit the homepage within their session of subscribing.
More than 50% of subscriber sessions include a homepage visit. And 40% of new subscriptions viewed the homepage before subscribing. Building that habit is critical for our long-term digital subscription stability. We’ve also seen an increase in new subscriptions that included a visit to the homepage and a reduction in complaints about the homepage’s “staleness.”
Frequent use of the homepage is correlated to stronger retention and a much higher likelihood of subscribing. This period of increased focus on the homepage was closely timed to the initial outbreak of coronavirus in Seattle, one of the first U.S. epicenters. Over the course of 2020, digital only subscribers increased by 58% and we’ve seen the lowest levels of churn among core subscribers at 9.72%. While this success cannot all be attributed to the modification of the homepage, we know that engagement with the homepage has increased over the past year.
Q: What didn’t work?
A: Maintaining a schedule for centerpiece changes was only a first step. It was informed by audience metrics but still determined by the newsroom and — let’s admit it — arbitrary. It led to a lot of mistakes, such as featuring centerpieces for hours that our audiences didn’t care about.
The next step was to be much more informed by real-time analytics. Using Chartbeat, we’ve grown much more attuned to what our audiences are looking for when they visit our homepage. Some stories should be featured for longer. Some for only a short period of time.
We often wondered how often people visit our homepage in a day. Now we can tell by watching audience interest in a story drop off over time. We’re working on being led by our audiences by keeping a close eye on our Chartbeat analytics.
So, as much as our schedules got us started in making the changes our audiences asked us to make, they also held us back from being audience-led. Too often, we were moving away from a story while audiences were still interested and also featuring other stories for too long, even though audiences were not interested. After all, our goal is to maintain audience interest and habit, not simply to maintain a rigid schedule.
To be clear, we are not frantically cycling stories on and off the homepage. We continue to provide special care to stories that we know are important. For those stories, we work to make the most of them by swapping images, A/B testing headlines, shortening (or lengthening) summaries and cutlines to make the most of our journalism.
Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?
A: By keeping our homepage dynamic and monitoring real-time analytics, we’re actually able to make better-informed decisions on all of our distribution platforms.
Our homepage audiences are not that different than the audiences that subscribe to our alerts, our email newsletters or our desktop notifications.
We can take a risk on a story on our homepage, experiment with the headline and teaser, then see how it does. If it resonates well with audiences, that’s a good indicator that it might do well on other platforms as well. If we’re uncertain whether we should alert a story, seeing how it does on the homepage is a great way to inform that decision.
Q: What would you do differently now? What did you learn?
A: The homepage is not dead!
It is absolutely critical to grow and retain subscribers — and one of the most important ways directly to reach audiences and build their habit. In our journey, we should have increased reliance on real-time data sooner and empowered producers to make shifts on the homepage as needed. Don’t get too hung up on what should be a centerpiece.
We’ve also learned through research and analytics how important it is to emphasize and call attention to what’s new on the homepage. Use prominent timestamps; flag live updates. A content block dedicated to the latest news (which is autofed) is one of the most popular areas on the homepage. Make it easy for readers to find what is current.
Q: What advice would you give to others who try to do this?
A: Take the time to understand where your most valued audience is and meet their needs. When you think about the homepage, pay attention to the experience on desktop and mobile. Mobile and the prominence of the initial position should be focused on and curated accordingly. Take time to experiment, test, use data and learn. Then take time to share insights on headlines, images and topics that perform particularly well with homepage audiences.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
A: The homepage is only dead if newsrooms decide to make them completely irrelevant. If we listen to the audiences that use our homepage, we can build the habit with them and draw other people to it as well. If we listen to our most dedicated audiences, our homepages can become major drivers in acquiring and retaining subscribers.